by Gabrielle MacLellan
100 years since Winnipeg General Strike
Canada’s best known general strike happened in Winnipeg from May 15 to June 25, 1919. In March of the year of the strike the western labour leaders met to discuss the creation of one big union in Calgary. On May 15 in Winnipeg, negotiations between management and labour from the building and metal trades broke down. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike, within hours close to 30,000 workers had left their jobs. These thousands of workers took a stand to demand fair treatment from their employers.
The strike caused work to stop at the railway yard across Winnipeg, at the same time all production in factories stopped. The city had no open mall, taxis, streetcars, telegrams, newspapers, telephones, gasoline, or even milk delivery. Even the majority of restaurants, barbershops and retail stores shut down.
The government and employers didn’t waste anytime responding to the strike. The Citizen’s Committee of a thousand was formed from them and included the wealthiest manufactures, lawyers, bankers, and politicians in Winnipeg.
The federal government was worried about the heightened tensions in Winnipeg, so several cabinet ministers travelled to Winnipeg. They met with local government officials and the Citizen’s Committee, they however refused requests from the Strike committee to meet. On the advice of the visiting cabinet members the provincial government supported the employers and Federal employees were ordered back to work or faced being dismissed. This resulted in ten strike leaders being arrested and the strike continuing.
On June 21, later to become known as bloody Saturday, a protest in support of the arrest of their leaders took place with thousands of supporters. The North West Mounted Police were dispatched to disperse the crowds. This resulted in the deaths of two strikers and the injuries of at least thirty. When the crowd scattered into nearby streets, they were met by hundreds of special police who beat the protesters with baseball bats and wagon spokes. It wasn’t long till the army was patrolling the streets with machine guns mounted on their vehicles.
The strike leaders were worried about more violence, so they called the strike to an end on June 26. The end of the General Strike in Winnipeg did little to bring labour peace in Canada. Even though the strikers lost the battle eventually they won the war for workers’ rights. Due to this strike Winnipeg’s economy went into decline. Many of the strike leaders who were arrested became politicians who worked for the cause of labour. These politicians helped set the Canadian Labour laws we have today.